Benjamin Melancon asks an interesting question in the comments section of a recent entry. He asks in my broader experience, how common are arts organizations with elected boards rather than recruited board members.
His particular organization, Amazing Things Arts Center has decided the “only way to begin to answer those questions of balancing money and contacts versus effort and representation, or stability versus fresh talent, or anything else, was to have our board elected by the membership.”
My answer to him is, in my broader experience, I don’t really know of any. I do know of non-arts non-profits that have elected boards–more on that in a minute. I would be interested to know if anyone else has had experience with elected board vs. appointed. Email me or add a comment.
I think perhaps the operative term in his question might be “community arts organization.” This may be something that is more workable in a smaller scale arts operation. The current capital fund drive Amazing Things is doing is for $30,000. It is easier to eschew the bucks and buddies board orientation if you aren’t in need of a great deal of money. They may find that things change in the future.
But it does bring up an interesting point worth examining. The one thing that a recruited board has over an elected one is that if you do the vetting properly, you will ensure that the people on the board are philosophically aligned with the goals and mission of the organization. If they don’t then you have no one to blame but yourselves.
You don’t have the same assurance with an elected board. The best illustration of this fact with a non-profit is the Sierra Club. The last two year’s elections have been contentious battles between factions within the club accusing each other of lying to either stifle progressives or promote a racist, anti-immigration agenda depending on which side you are on.
There are such concerns about people trying to stack the deck in their favor by getting their friends to join the Sierra Club, there are proposed amendments to their by-laws removing spaces for write in candidates from the ballot and requiring people to be members for a full year before they can run for a board position.
You don’t want to think that will happen in your organization when you are starting it up and it probably wouldn’t for many years. However, looking at Amazing Things Arts Center’s bylaws (and I am only using them as an example because I don’t know of any other arts organizations) all one needs to do is get their friends to pay the $25 membership fee the day before an election or meeting to stack the member attendance in their favor to elect or remove a board member. Since proxies are not allowed, it might be difficult to rally enough support to combat this if one sees this sort of thing coming only the day before.
That being said, the whole process in an membership elected board is much more transparent than it is in an appointed board. Also, the membership feel a greater investment if they can identify with the board member. If power shifts in an appointed board and someone is ousted, it can be difficult to get the membership at large outraged.
Whereas if a large portion of the membership is at a meeting where tensions are running high because $500 was shelled out to allow 20 new people to vote, that is something you remember the next time around. (On the other hand, it can undermine confidence in the organization much more than kicking a vaguely known board member off a recruited board)
So pros and cons to both approaches. I am other folks can think of more. On the whole though, keeping people interested and invested in your organization is a good thing. It is even better if you can get people interested and invested whose bank accounts accrue interest that can be invested.
Having the voices of a number of somewhat less wealthy people to advocate for you can be valuable as well. When I was working in South Jersey, Subaru of America which has its HQ in Cherry Hill, NJ was celebrating its 30th anniversary by giving away 30 cars to 30 causes. They had their employees vote on which organizations to give cars to and the place I was working at got one because of those votes. (I gotta say, those are some pretty nice cars)
I really liked some of what I saw on Amazing Arts Center, so much so that I am gonna devote my next entry to it.